By E. E. Sule
Saturday, January 15, 2011.
The torn legs of Ojotu’s pair of trousers – it was his farm wear – billowed rhythmically. His footwear made elaborate footmarks on the wet ground. His sweaty arms swung along, the unbuttoned cuffs of the threadbare shirt flapping. Achigili, barefooted, was trotting behind Ojotu, his father. The desperation in Ojotu’s long strides convinced Achigili of the poster’s importance. He saw a man at some distance, sitting on his thatched roof, half naked, mending the roof with ropes. Maybe he hasn’t heard of the poster. Or his main concern now is how to prevent his homestead from the wrath of another impending downpour.
Achigili slowed down when he noticed a puppy pursuing two skinny lambs. A big goat with heavy udder emerged, horns set, fiercely running after the puppy. Alerted by the sharp sounds of hoofs behind it, the puppy dodged toward Mama Jenebu’s thatched stall where she sold only pounded yam and okra soup. The puppy stopped suddenly when it saw a man emerged from the stall, licking his lips and rubbing his wet palms. Achigili turned and realised the distance between his father and him. He sprinted.
Agye came out of his house, walking even faster than Ojotu. He wore a pair of faded blue jeans, torn at the knees; and a clean white T-shirt that had a picture of Michael Jackson gripping a microphone on the front of it. As he walked past Achigili and Ojotu, he said to Ojotu, “Brother, are you also going to see that strange picture?”
“Yes, Brother. I’m coming straight from the farm.”
“Hmm. Did you listen to the radio? America had never had it like that.”
They caught up with two old men doddering along, sticks in hands. They greeted the old men aloud, calling their traditional titles. The old men responded by chuckling and calling out their names. Ojotu and Agye, Achigili trotting behind, soon walked past the old men. From the opposite direction, the road that led to Loko, two middle aged women were hurrying forth, their feet dusty. The taller one carried a baby on her back. The baby was whimpering. But she was focused on where she was going. A young man drove a motorcycle past, raising dust. He headed toward the village square.
Ojotu, Agye and Achigili were among the last to arrive at the square. A man wearing tattered brocade was limping behind them, willing his bad leg to carry him faster.
“Where is it?” Ojotu asked.
“There,” a young woman said, pointing.
“I can see it!” Agye enthused.
A number of people still stood around the leafy cashew tree on whose trunk the poster was pasted. But they no longer had to push their way; they no longer had to step on one another’s feet; they no longer had to quarrel over space. As it had earlier happened. Ojotu simply squeezed himself between an old man and a middle aged man. The old man looked up at Ojotu, his wrinkled face splitting into a smile. Agye secured a space between two middle aged women. Achigili moved to the other end. He manoeuvred his way between the legs of adults and found himself standing before the poster.
It was not large. But it was coloured, like that of the military head of state Ojotu saw in the parlour of the village head. It was gradually getting soaked in the water trickling down the trunk of the tree. The face of the man, his skin, as Ojotu could see, was pink. The eyes were small and beady. The beard was long, magisterial. Really longer than those of the devout Muslims in the village. His head was commonly turbaned.
“But this is just a common Arab man,” Ojotu said excitedly to the hearing of everyone.
“Osama bin Laden is not a common Arab man!” someone answered him from behind.
Ojotu turned and saw Omamedu who repeated what he said, as though Ojotu disbelieved him. Ojotu noticed that Omamedu’s chin sprouted hair.
A tall middle aged woman said, “How can this thin, hungry-looking man be so famous for causing trouble in Amelika?”
Omamedu promptly replied, “Mama Confo, Osama bin Laden broke the testicles of giants? Have you not seen the photo of the two horns of Satan in America falling down when Osama bin Laden struck three days ago?”
People burst into laughter. Mama Confo did not laugh, looked incredulous.
An old man said, “Take a good look at his eyes. People with such eyes are trouble makers.”
Agye who had been all the while engrossed in the poster seemed to have had enough of it. He said loudly to no one in particular, “I swear by God, I’m disappointed. Maybe this is not the Osama bin Laden they talk about.”
Mama Confo moved away from the cashew tree. Something caught her attention. She called, “Ene-Inaligwu!”
An old woman who was staring emotionally at the severed rope of her footwear turned to her.
“What are you doing here?” Mama Confo asked.
“My blessed ancestors! I’ve also come to see the picture of the man who wants to destroy Aaamme—how do you call that name?”
“Iyo! That’s it. But see what that stupid boy has done to my footwear”. She raised her head and pointed her right index finger at no one in particular. Her left hand held the muddy footwear toward Mama Confo, its rope dangling.
Mama Confo took the footwear from her, took her wrist and said, “Let’s go away. The ground is wet and slippery, you could have fallen down.”
The old woman pouted in mock anger. “Why does everyone think I would slip and fall? Can’t you see I’m brave?”
“You are brave, Our Mother. But you don’t need to see the Omusulumi who bullies Amelika.”
“Is he a Omusulumi?” the old woman asked, her lips shaking.
“Those who hit their heads on the ground? In my youth we didn’t have these strange religions. We only heard that they existed in far away lands.”
“May our ancestors protect us from the wrath of religions that come from far away lands. Let’s go. I have to soak millet for the wine of Masquerade Festival Day.”
Mama Confo and the old woman moved toward the fringe of the village square.
There was still din as people milled about at the square. Some leaned on the two huge mango trees, some on the ancient baobab tree. Many stood in age-mate groups. They chatted in loud voices and occasionally burst into raucous laughter. Children chased one another, playing hide and seek among their engrossed parents. Some of them fell down because the ground was wet and slippery. Young women gathered under the Melaina tree. Some of them carried naked babies against their chests. A child was crying, tugging at its mother’s cloth. The mother was explaining something to a half-naked woman. Four old men stood near a bicycle. One of them, tall, skinny and bent, was fumbling with his pipe. A young man, sitting on a bicycle, his left leg steady on the ground, was talking to a group of young men. Some of them wore only shorts; some of them carried transistor radios.
It rained heavily in the morning, drizzled at midday, and it appeared the sky was not yet satisfied. Footprints, accentuated by the muddy ground, assert their presence everywhere on the village square.
“In Alijana, there is no room for hypocrisy!” Omamedu told the shocked middle aged men sitting on the large mat under the Melaina tree in front of the village mosque. He was flanked by Osman and Aruna. They belonged to his age-group. In the Muslim Youth Association headed by Omamedu, Osman and Aruna were Secretary-General and Treasurer respectively.
The evening sun was weak, coming and going through the light clouds.
It was the imam, gorgeously turbaned, who spoke first. “Omamedu, is this the result of the turban you now wear? That you can be rude to your elders?”
Omamedu, Osman and Aruna stared defiantly at the imam.
There were two new plastic kettles on the floor. Two of the men sitting on the mat held prayer beads of different designs in their hands, counting. Another man, head turbaned, teeth stained from eating kola nuts, hunched over the brown sheets of an open Koran. A light-skinned man canted his body to the right, his weight on his right elbow, dozing. The skinniest of the men, quite older, sat cross-legged on a goatskin beside the mat, puffing away at his pipe, his left hand playing with his dainty goatee.
The skinny man held the pipe away from his lips and asked, “Is that not the son of Adanu, the mosque keeper?”
“He is. They say he is the Youth leader and he carries himself about as an Imam.” It was one of the men counting their beads who spoke.
The skinny man threw his head backward, laughing. “The cat once presented himself as a child of lion in the land of lesser animals.”
Omamedu narrowed his eyes and blurted out, “All are equal before Allah. Besides, only righteous elders deserve our respect!”
Osman and Aruna nodded their heads in accord.
“Subahanalilahi!” the man reading the Koran exclaimed. He sprang up. He was pointing his right finger at Omamedu. “May Allah bring curse upon you for this act of impudence! May Allah bring perdition on your violent soul! Is that why you’ve been displaying Ocama bin Ladan’s pictures all over the village?”
Omamedu interrupted, edging toward the kettles, “Only Allah will decide whether it is we or you that are bound to hell! You can’t even pronounce the name of the holy one!”
The man lunged toward Omamedu. “If you don’t leave here…”
“Don’t lay your filthy hands on me. I’m not afraid of kafiris who pretend to be Muslim elders. Any difference between you and those who worship idols in this village?” He quickly kicked one of the kettles with his right leg. It upturned. The cover gave way and the locally brewed liquor inside it poured out, splashing on the mat. In that instant, Aruna kicked the second kettle. It flew, disgorging the same liquor on the now frozen imam.
“This son of slave!”
“Sons of Satan!”
Omamedu, Osman and Aruna swaggered away as the contents of the kettles dribbled away.
Dressed in his best, Achigili was among the spectators on the Masquerade Festival Day who stood under an orange tree watching the female masquerade Ajinika. The Ajinika show had just started. It was the show for women and children. It occurred to Achigili that the masquerade walked in the manner his father walked, although she was a woman with breasts, with mounds of beautifully woven hair. His father could never dance like this. The masquerade thrust and twisted its waist to the rapid rhythm of the Ikpata drums. People clapped and cheered now and then.
Then Ajinika danced backward unsteadily. Her head jerked violently. It was not until she collapsed in convulsive rhythms and began to tear her cloth that the hilarious spectators came to realise it was not a new style of dance.
“Eka he ji mo!” the leader of the masquerade cult raised alarm.
Ajinika first tore off her woven hairdo. Then her man-like but trembling fingers gripped the woolly material and began to rend it, revealing Ojotu’s bloodshot eyes. He jerked and retched, and then an oily, slimy, stinking liquid oozed out of his mouth. Three men rushed to his aid.
“Eka he ji mo!” the cult leader yelled.
“Chakokoo!” a middle aged woman screamed.
Another woman took it up: “Ele le le leee!”
“Ubaba! Ubaba! Ubaba!” Achigili was shouting as he made to rush to his father but the cult leader prevented him.
“You must not see it! You must not see this midday taboo!” an old woman, barely able to run, kept yelling on top of her voice.
Women and children broke into loud wails and took to their heels.
Clouds had begun to appear in the sky.
At the village square the male masquerade Asheka was rolling on the ground. Jerking, convulsing in that very manner characteristic of his response to Ganga drums. His cult members along with the spectators were distracted by the frightened and fleeing people. In minutes they understood what was amiss. They also understood that the unprecedented romance of Asheka with the ground was not the usual acrobatics. The cult members rushed to Asheka and circled him. They raised him from the ground. Asheka had no strength left. They carried him above their heads and rushed away.
Achigili, frightened and running home, slowed down, and then stopped running. In front of him, under an orange tree, an old woman was stripping herself naked. Methodically, dancingly. She engaged in the practised act of raising one leg after the other as though in response to Ikpata rhythms. At the same time her scrawny, veined hands held the long rope of her native skirt, undoing it. The skirt dropped on her feet. Achigili backed away, turned and ran, as his eyes caught a number of younger women rushing toward the old woman.
“My ancestors! What is the matter?” exclaimed a young woman with a baby strapped on her back.
“See people running!”
“See Alade hitting his head on the wall over there!”
The young people under the tree grabbed the naked old woman and began to drag her toward a house. She started vomiting as a stout young woman lifted her bodily from the ground.
A young woman was desperately shouting on top of her voice: “There is a problem! Something is wrong. Go to the field and see! Something is wrong.”
Agye, who emerged from his house trying to understand what was going on, started scolding her, “Why are you shouting that much? What did you….” His voice ceased, his mouth agape, when he saw a half-naked old man being pursued by younger people. Before he was caught, the old man stopped running and broke into a song, throwing his legs wildly in a funny dance. Two young men dragged him toward a house painted in grey.
“He is drunk!”
“This is more than drunk!” Agye said.
“Go to the football field and see! The house of the village head!” the young woman insisted, pointing her finger toward the field. The house of the village head was beside the field.
Then it began to drizzle. Most of the people froze. Some of them looked at the sky. “Where is the rainmaker?” Agye asked aloud. “Something terrible must have happened.”
They all understood. Rains never fell on Masquerade Festival Day. The rainmaker withheld the rains. They all rushed to the field. Instead of heading home Achigili joined them. The young women held their breasts in despair.
The village head, tall and wiry, was unmistakable on the field. He had thrown away his robe which he customarily wore on Masquerade Festival Day. On his small, bony waist was a pair of shorts, beads and talismans strung round it. He was flinging his right leg, chasing an imaginary football. With the rain the field was growing slippery. He fell down and instantly scrambled to his feet, still chasing the imaginary football. Some steps away from the village head, an old man was dancing in a circle. A woman was lying flat on her belly on the green grass, vomiting. Another old man, gorgeously dressed, grabbed a trunk of a mango tree beside the field, shouting, “Let me uproot this tree! I will uproot this tree! This witch, I must uproot you!” Then he began to bang his waist on the tree.
A middle aged man, bare-chested, was shouting, flexing his muscles, “I am the son of Ede, of Ariku, of Oshaka, the eternal wrestler of Afoland!” He moved to a staggering woman and landed her a blow on her jaw. She yelped and collapsed languidly. Some frantic young men rushed toward the attacker. He threw blows at everyone. It took some time before they bound him. Some of the young men, the middle aged men and women, were also showing unusual behaviour, mostly growing weak. Most of them collapsed on the lush green grass of the field.
The rain had graduated from mere drizzle. It was not a windy downpour. Everybody was drenched.
The village pastor and some men, including Agye, stood beside the village head who was fast losing his energy.
“It’s the liquor they drank,” the pastor said.
“But our parents have been drinking the burukutu liquor all their lives. Why this situation today?” Agye replied the pastor.
The village imam stood by the field, flanked by some Muslim elders in the village. They looked confused, depressed.
“How can the entire village be this drunk? Something is terribly wrong. We must begin to pray for the souls of the unbelievers,” the imam said and began to count his unusually fat prayer beads. Others brought out their prayer beads. The imam said something in Arabic. They chorused a response and began to count their beads.
Achigili stood on the other side of the field with the young women. One after the other, the young women, some of them carrying their babies, some of them tying their headscarves around their waists, burst into tears. The young men who were not under the spell struggled to help the elderly ones. They asked each other what had gone wrong. Why most of the people had gone insane. They called on God, on Eha the village divinity, and on their ancestral spirits to intervene.
Under an orange tree the seats of the council of elders remained in the positions their owners left them: three fell backward, five fell forward, and four lay upside down. That of the village head fell sideways. They were thoroughly soaked.
The rain had subsided, reduced to drizzles.
Achigili recognised the drenched puppy as it moved onto the field, stopping now and them to smell those lying down. It wagged its tail jovially. One of the men, raising his head and setting his bloodshot eyes on the puppy, kicked it hard. The puppy collapsed, yelping. Achigili rushed to its aid.
Even before their letter came everyone had known that the local liquor had been poisoned with the highly intoxicating flower plant Jegemy, mixed with other hard drugs. The foremost village seer merely gave clues which were confirmed by their letter. It was signed by three of them, Omamedu’s signature coming first. The letter concluded simply, In the name of Allah we members of Al-Quaeda of Usha village shall continue to fight liquor-drinking Muslim hypocrites and infidels in our land.
©E. E. SULE 2010
E.E Sule's work include The Agatu Culture: Songs and Dances (2002, a study of oral poetry); Impotent Heavens (2004, a collection of short stories); Knifing Tongues (2005, a volume of poetry); The Writings of Zaynab Alkali (2005, a critical work, co-authored with Umelo Ojinmah); Naked Sun (2006, a volume of poetry); and Dream and Shame (2006, a collection of short stories). He is awaiting the publication of a new novel.